All aboard through the Islington tunnel!

In addition to leading walking tours in Islington our guide Chris Annus also regularly takes to the water…

As a guide for the London Canal Museum I’m incredibly lucky to not only share the history of the Regent’s Canal with people but also take them through one of its atmospheric tunnels on our very own boat Long Tom. 

Started in 1812 and completed in 1820, the Regent’s Canal joined London to the central spine of the country’s canal network. It connected the canal terminus at Paddington station, Little Venice to the newly built London docks at Limehouse and access to the Thames boats bringing produce from all over the Empire. 

The construction was not without its challenges, including Islington’s hilly terrain, especially at Angel. Due to the steepness of the hill, additional locks would have been too expensive and impractical. A tunnel was the logical solution and the great engineer John Rennie was chosen to judge the design competition. Unfortunately, he withdrew after his own tunnel at Archway collapsed so James Morgan, the canal’s chief engineer, took over in 1814

The Canal Museum’s boat, Long Tom, travels through the Islington tunnel

Six shafts were lined up and built across the hill in addition to being excavated from each end. Work came to a halt in September 1815 due to lack of funds; not helped by the canal’s clerk of works, Thomas Homer, embezzling funds and running off to the continent. 

In 1817, the government was lending money for major works as part of a ‘job creation’ programme for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars without jobs or homes. An application for £20,000 was successful on condition that the company also employ people from the workhouse at Marylebone. 

The 886-metres-long tunnel was completed in September 1818 using 4 million bricks. Once the eastern part of the canal was finished, the tunnel opened to great ceremony, with brass bands accompanying barges going through on 1 August 1820. The quality of the work was exemplary and the tunnel needed no major repair until 2000.

Originally boats were ‘legged’ through the tunnel. Usually two narrowboats were strapped together with men on either side lying on a plank pushing with their feet on the brickwork leg over leg. This could take about an hour. Meanwhile, the horses used to pull the barges were led over the hill via ramps on either side of the tunnel entrances and picked the boats up on the other side. 

In 1825, a four-horsepower steam engine pulled a haulage chain, which the boats were hooked onto, to get them through. A new tunnel tug was introduced in 1900, which worked until a self-propelled tug was introduced in 1921, which did away with the chain system. 

After over 100 years as a separate company the Regent’s Canal merged with the Grand Junction and the Warwick canals in 1929 to form the Grand Union Canal Company. The canal was nationalised in 1948. The last horse drawn commercial traffic was carried in 1956. Towpath tractors took over and continued until the 1960s. 

A trip through Islington tunnel is still a unique and mesmerising experience as you glide through in near darkness to emerge into the light, literally ‘at the end of the tunnel’ and on both sides see the legacy of the area’s wonderful industrial past. 

50-minute, roundtrip boat tours through Islington tunnel take place on Thursdays and Sundays and can be booked through the London Canal Museum in King’s Cross.

When he’s not on the water you’ll find Chris leading tours of St Mary’s Church and Canonbury Tower.  Find out more about upcoming guided walks in Islington and Clerkenwell at our website.